In his latest novel, the autobiographical Aleph renowned author Paulo Coelho turns to the familiar themes at the heart of human life: love, betrayal, suffering, forgiveness, wisdom, with an exquisitely deft and very personal touch.
These strands are woven together against the sweeping background of the great continent of Asia. Brazilian-born Coelho is travelling across Russia on board the famous Trans-Siberian Railway, ostensibly on a book tour. The difficult, bone shaking and, at times, surprising 9288 kilometre trip from Moscow to the port city of Vladivostok, however, has a deeper purpose. Coelho, an instinctive pilgrim, is in search of his soul, his inner kingdom, which has become clouded with doubt and corrupted by routine.
As Coelho's teacher J. enigmatically points out to him, "You're not here anymore. You've got to leave in order to return to the present." Readers familiar with Coelho's work will no doubt hear echoes of The Alchemist at this point although Aleph is more concerned with redemption. How do you right a wrong as heinous as those committed during the Spanish Inquisition or is it more a question of forgiveness freely given? "It isn't what you did in the past that will affect the present," J. assures Coelho. "It's what you do in the present that will redeem the past and thereby change the future."
Any journey is enlivened, or ruined, by one's companions and the unexpected arrival of tempestuous Hilal has an electrifying impact on the otherwise sober publishing group. Like an overzealous and rather demented fan, she demands to become part of Coelho's continent-crossing entourage. Hilal has a prodigious talent for the violin and an equally copious capacity for rubbing people up the wrong way. Is Coelho telling us that difficult people can also be our teachers? She is also the link between Coelho and a previous lifetime when the fate of eight young women hung in the balance. His choices on that far off day during the Inquisition have haunted him ever since, although much of what actually happened is hidden from him. During his life the author has met four of those eight women, each of whom provided a small piece of the puzzle.
Hilal is the fifth woman of that group, and the one who loves him without reservation or reason. Perhaps this is the key because on that seemingly interminable Trans-Siberian train trip, a portal mysteriously opens on to the past. It's the eponymous aleph which Coelho describes as, "...a window looking out at the world and its secret places, poetry lost in time and words left hanging in space". The aleph is the first letter of three alphabets; mathematically it means the number that contains all numbers; it is the entree to the divine. The Chinese call it qi.
As Coelho delves more into these mysteries he meets characters who are transient and memorable. These encounters may be fleeting but the stories and insights gained are vivid. We meet a shaman, a mafiosa, the author's artistic wife whose memory allows him to resist the temptations of Hilal and the aikido-trained interpreter Yao, a man who killed God. Coelho reminds us how we are all interconnected: "Everyone contributes a word, a sentence, an image, but in the end, it all makes sense: the happiness of one becomes the joy of all". Aleph is a great novel to read on the cusp of the prophetic year of 2012. It is at times a tender love story, at times a spiritual manual and in other parts deeply moving - who could forget Hilal's spontaneous outpouring of forgiveness in the Novosibirsk church? This book inspires us take stock of our relationships, honour our heart space and renew our personal journeys.
Nicola Silva is a journalist and writer based in Sydney